How to Avoid Self-Publishing Scams

By on April 10, 2015
How to Avoid Self-Publishing Scams - Writer's

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Many self-publishers start their book projects with unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tions and mis­un­der­stand­ings about how pub­lish­ing works. A huge indus­try has arisen to prey on writ­ers who are unsure of the path. This arti­cle explains the basics of how pub­lish­ing scams work and how writ­ers can avoid them.

Publishers must learn the risks inher­ent to their busi­ness. If you fan­ta­size you’ll earn your invest­ment back as soon as you get on Oprah’s show, it’s not the sup­ply chain’s job to pressure-test your assumptions.

“If I’m painter and you want pur­ple zebra stripes on your pink house, someone’s going to take your money; it might as well be me.”

Though that kind of busi­ness prac­tice isn’t strictly uneth­i­cal, it over­looks the fact that the most impor­tant thing pub­lish­ing ser­vice providers can sell is guid­ance. Too many author ser­vice com­pa­nies take advan­tage of the fact that it really is your respon­si­bil­ity to know what you’re get­ting into.

To under­stand where the bait-and-switch usu­ally hap­pens in pub­lish­ing scams, it’s essen­tial to under­stand how the bookseller’s eco­nomic pie gets sliced.

Publishing: Editorial and Production Costs

Production costs are an essen­tial aspect of bring­ing a well-made book to mar­ket. Every writer pays for qual­ity in the short run or for short­cuts in the long run. Every pub­lisher must pay for ink and paper, and (I hope) for edit­ing and design. Editors and design­ers are part of the essen­tial sup­ply chain that results in ready-to-retail books. The pro­fes­sion­als who make their liv­ing pro­vid­ing print­ing, cover design, edit­ing, type­set­ting, and bind­ing can quite rea­son­ably be expected to earn a profit.

If these costs aren’t clearly stated, don’t pre­tend your “pub­lisher” has some mag­i­cal abil­ity to “make them go away.” Anyone claim­ing to be your publisher—even a legit­i­mate operator—expects to pay these bills. Knowing where that money comes from is important.

Publishing: Distribution and Sales Costs

Additional costs include ship­ping, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and seller com­mis­sions (which usu­ally run half of cover price). These costs occur after your book is made avail­able to the pub­lic and an order is placed.

Do you know what it costs to sell one copy of your book? Do the math. Subtract your edi­to­r­ial and pro­duc­tion costs from what you have left after the seller’s com­mis­sion is paid. If you don’t know what it costs to print, ship, and sell a book, you are not in con­trol of your pub­lish­ing business.

The Publisher’s Cut

If you received an advance pay­ment against roy­al­ties on your book, you most likely have a tra­di­tional pub­lisher back­ing you. Publishers are investors who buy and sell intel­lec­tual prop­erty for profit. Your pub­lisher thinks your book will sell and has paid for edit­ing, design, mar­ket­ing, print­ing, and dis­tri­b­u­tion on top of your advance. Consider what an enor­mous risk that is if you’re an unknown author. Your pub­lisher is gam­bling on mak­ing enough profit on book sales to cover your pro­duc­tion costs and your advance—before they see a dime. It’s no won­der pub­lish­ing con­tracts are so dif­fi­cult to come by. Publishers cer­tainly care that your book is good, but they mostly care whether your book will sell.

Many a tra­di­tion­ally pub­lished author has won­dered why noth­ing came in after the ini­tial advance. “I thought I was going to make $2 per book. I know you’ve sold books; where’s my money?” Very often, the book has sold but it hasn’t sold enough copies to cover the publisher’s investment.Your pub­lisher is in busi­ness, too. After invest­ing in you, they expect to recover their out­lay before they skip mer­rily down the profit shar­ing road with you.

Other Risks

If you’re sell­ing books in tra­di­tional book­stores, returned books can bury you. If you dis­trib­ute 3000 books and sell 1000, you can still lose money when you have to pay for 2000 unsold books to be returned or destroyed (tragic but cheaper than ship­ping them back and fig­ur­ing out what to do with them). Read more about returns here.

How Publishing Scams Work

Vanity pub­lish­ing scams usu­ally tar­get first-time pub­lish­ers. Most have a rough draft man­u­script ready and have begun to ask ques­tions about how to pub­lish. They need edit­ing, type­set­ting, design, and dis­tri­b­u­tion. A web search soon brings them to xUni­verse­House who offers one-stop shop­ping for all the needed ser­vices and a dis­tri­b­u­tion pack­age. They offer a plat­inum plan, a gold plan, a sil­ver plan, and a tin plan with ser­vices that fit any bud­get. You get to keep your copy­right so the deal is “risk free.” When Penguin calls offer­ing a big con­tract, you won’t be locked in to your deal with xUniverseHouse.

Most authors have heard all the bad doo doo about self-publishing. They want a “real” pub­lisher and xUni­verse­House offers to assume that role. xUni­verse­House inflates the retail price and skims the cream back off every sale as a “publisher’s” roy­alty. Here’s where the red bull­shit indi­ca­tor light on your dash­board should be flash­ing.XUniverseHouse hasn’t invested a dime in your book. Why should it earn a roy­alty from it? If any­thing, xUni­verse­House has put you at a dis­ad­van­tage by increas­ing your retail price (and by putting their kiss-of-death logo on your book’s spine). This is why “self-publishing com­pa­nies” are oxy­moronic: you’re either self-publishing or some­one is pub­lish­ing you. Paying some­one to be your pub­lisher is like hir­ing some­one to take a vaca­tion for you so you can stay home and work.

Here we find a use­ful def­i­n­i­tion for the term, “pub­lisher.” A pub­lisher is an entity thatinvests in and assumes the risks for pro­duc­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing a piece of media.

Escaping the Trap

So maybe you “pub­lished” with xUni­verse­House before you read this arti­cle or had some­one point out the typos in your book. Maybe you got an informed cri­tique of the cover art and found out it’s for­mu­laic or cliché. Probably, the work done by xUni­verse­House isn’t hor­ri­ble; it just never got past “pretty good.” Maybe your book’s just too expensive?

No big deal. The con­tract says you can get out at any time. But the small print says the cover art and the type­set­ting and other dig­i­tal assets belong to xUni­verse­House. As the pub­lisher of record, xUni­verse­House also owns the ISBN num­ber on your book. You can end your con­tract but you’ll have to start over with a Word doc­u­ment and find your own sources for design and dis­tri­b­u­tion. After spend­ing a lot of money, you’re back at square one.

You can repub­lish but you’ll also have to com­pete with cheap, “used” copies of your orig­i­nal xUni­verse­House edi­tion on Amazon.

And if you agreed to dis­trib­ute 100 books to xUniverseHouse’s list of “qual­i­fied review­ers,” you can count on see­ing dozens of fifty-cent “like new” copies of your book on eBay.

One way to get out of this trap is to self-publish. The Writer's Life Team has created an online webinar called "How to Get Published, Sell Books & Attract Tens of Thousands of Readers by Selling Your Content" on Amazon's Kindle. This webinar teaches writers how to self-publish online, self publish to Amzon's Kindle Direct Publishing Platform and market and prote and sell your written material online.


If a pub­lisher wants to nego­ti­ate a deal where it splits the pro­duc­tion costs with the author and then splits the roy­al­ties, co-publishing might qual­ify as one of the non-traditional pub­lish­ing mod­els that isn’t a scam, but I found a tiny hand­ful of oper­a­tors who appeared to be play­ing that game straight.

When enter­ing into such a “part­ner­ship,” make sure that all the costs—production, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and selling—are fully dis­closed. Your pub­lish­ing part­ner may be able to invest sweat equity or access out­sourced ser­vices at a reduced cost, but you should under­stand the value of those services.

Install some qual­ity con­trol mea­sures. What recourse do you have if you find typos in your book that your publisher’s edi­tor missed? Do you retain the right to approve the cover design?

Taking Control

Don’t fly your pub­lish­ing plane with the visor down. Writing is an art but pub­lish­ing is a busi­ness. If you intend to share your work, run some num­bers and take control.

Start with a hypo­thet­i­cal cover price. Price is dri­ven by the mar­ket, not by your costs. If other books in your genre sell for $20, you need to find a way to prof­itably bring your book to mar­ket for $20.

Subtract 50% for the seller com­mis­sion (Lightning Source allows you to set seller com­mis­sions as low as 20% but don’t expect brick-and-mortar book­stores or non-traditional retail­ers to play along).

Do you know the cost to print, ship, and dis­trib­ute a book? Reputable pub­lish­ing ser­vices pro­vide a cost cal­cu­la­tor or at least a solid estimate.

Someone spent money on edit­ing, cover design, and type­set­ting. If that some­one is you, add up those costs and then amor­tize them over 100 books, 1000 books, 5000 books, etc. How many books do you have to sell before the pro­duc­tion costs are paid and you can start tak­ing a profit? You can’t know how many books you’ll sell but fig­ure out where the break-even point is. If you have a tra­di­tional pub­lisher, find out how many books the pub­lisher needs to sell before the “pro­duc­tion debt” is paid. This debt includes any advances against roy­al­ties paid to you when the deal was signed.

And though you may have thor­oughly enjoyed research­ing and writ­ing your book, if you’re seri­ously in the pub­lish­ing busi­ness, you’ll want to see your writ­ing hours paid for. You put 1000 hours or more into writ­ing your man­u­script but you’re the last link in the income chain. Know how many books you need to sell to start tak­ing roy­al­ties and then know how many books you need to receive roy­al­ties for to com­pen­sate your pub­lish­ing company’s “in-house writ­ing staff.”

It’s easy to see why so many writ­ers don’t pay atten­tion to these details. Publishing cost analy­sis can be dis­cour­ag­ing. Everyone down­stream of the pub­lisher gen­er­ally risks noth­ing yet makes a big­ger cut. Looking at books from a num­bers per­spec­tive, could you find a worse retail product?

All the same, peo­ple like you are out there writ­ing and mar­ket­ing good books for profit. Though the odds are against them, some find recep­tive audi­ences. A few find fame and for­tune, either through care­ful plan­ning or dumb luck (or a bit of both).

Publishing: Doing it Right

I’ve said it many times on this blog and I’ll say it again: Do your home­work! If you have pub­lished a book but don’t know the pub­lish­ing food chain basics described in this arti­cle, you’re swim­ming in shark-infested waters. This ain’t rocket surgery. Read up on the biz for a few hours.

Phony pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies aren’t risk-takers. They pro­vide bud­get edi­to­r­ial and design ser­vices and then mark them up for a profit. You get less and pay the same prices you would pay a pro­fes­sional. Vanity pub­lish­ers don’t get you book­store dis­tri­b­u­tion. Usually, the smoke­screen is that they’ll get listed with and all the major book­stores. And after you’ve paid them to bro­ker pro­duc­tion ser­vices, you get to pay them a “publisher’s roy­alty” on every book you sell.

True self-publishers under­stand the risks and adjust their expec­ta­tions accord­ingly. They invest in pro­fes­sional edi­tors, type­set­ters, and design­ers and hold their con­trac­tors to the high­est stan­dards. They work with print­ers and dis­trib­u­tors who offer straight talk about costs and prof­its, and they make their own deci­sions about prices, seller com­mis­sions, and return poli­cies. Some make peanuts on book sales but are able to use the fact that they “wrote the book on the sub­ject” to bring in con­sult­ing or con­tract work.

Make objec­tive, fact-based deci­sions. Smart pub­lish­ers aren’t con­cerned about what the rumor mill has to say about self-publishing or tra­di­tional pub­lish­ing on today’s forum dis­cus­sions. Self-publishing is ideal for cer­tain authors in cer­tain cir­cum­stances and tra­di­tional pub­lish­ing is ideal for oth­ers. Prejudice, gos­sip, and igno­rance con­tribute noth­ing to sound busi­ness choices. Choose your route carefully.

Above all, remem­ber that you, your ideas, your time, and your work are valu­able. Assume full con­trol over all these assets before hand­ing them over to any third party. Anyone shar­ing your pub­lish­ing pie must absorb cost or mit­i­gate risk if they are to be of any value to you

Thousands of writ­ers are snook­ered by pub­lish­ing scams every year, mostly because they’re afraid and they want an “expert” to han­dle every­thing. If you use a tra­di­tional pub­lisher, hire a lawyer to review your con­tract; it’s a small price to pay for pro­tec­tion when deal­ing with a big com­pany. Otherwise, heed the old adage: if you want a job done right…

In order to become a self-publisher you need discipline, a schedule and a business plan.  We can also offer Writer's Life readers the opportunity to purchase The Get it Done, Writer's Toolkit that can teach you how to overcome writer's block and procrastination so that you can come up with and create the best possible product to sell.

The author of this blog is Dave Bricker and it was published under the title Publishing Scams and How They Work at

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